Tina May: ‘Songs are the most wonderful way of speaking’

It’s very hard to navigate through Tina May‘s discography. For more than 25 years, she seems to follow a strict program of releasing one album per year, either under her own name, or as a featured vocalist, collaborating with British legends like Humphrey Lyttleton and Stan Tracey, or the Italian piano master Enrico Pieranunzi. Still, even if you do manage to go through her extensive discography, if you gawk at the names of people she’s played with, you still can’t get a clear idea of her artistic persona. Because Tina May is one of these larger-than-life performers who need nothing more than a mic and a spotlight to dominate a room. “Her eyelashes would come into the room about three-and-a-half minutes before she did,” comedian Rory Bremner once said in an interview, trying to put her theatrical presence into words. These days, Tina May is recognised as one of the UK’s leading jazz stylists; she is always touring around the country, making sure she never stays too far away from her beloved Paris. But this week, she is in Melbourne. Which means that Melburnians are lucky to be able to surrender to her commanding presence.

What would you say to people to invite them to your Melbourne shows?

Relax, as if you are coming to a private party.

I will warmly welcome audiences to feel relaxed and I invite them to join me on a musical journey through songs and stories. They can expect classics but also some surprises, too.Jazz is 100 years old now – and I am so happy to celebrate this in my shows…

I am presenting three shows:

Your shows are focusing on different themes; How do you approach each?

In each different show I inhabit the songs of the era and their historical context. Songs are the most wonderful way of speaking to us. Often the songwriters also had extraordinary lives – which added to their creativity. I try to tell their stories, too.

You seem to have a knack for unearthing relatively obscure tunes; how would you describe this process?

Often songs disappeared from theatrical shows for bizarre reasons, or shows closed because they were eclipsed by another show on Broadway that had the ‘it’ girl in it. Life is often completely random and beautiful songs often fall into obscurity. I like to find them.

A good song can really move you – in a way no ‘spoken’ words can. I am particularly proud of finding ‘Change of Sky’ by Phil Springer and Yip Harburg.

Also finding the verse to ‘Tonight I shall Sleep’ by Duke Ellington… I am the only one to ever record the verse, though Sarah Vaughan recorded the song in 1946.

My quest for forgotten songs continues..

How has your journey in music been so far?

My journey began when I was six and singing along with my mum and dad’s record collection. We were a musical family and regularly had sing-alongs around the piano. I played clarinet and my sister played violin. My dad loved Fats Waller and my mum loved all the big bands and singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.I studied classical singing for vocal technique but I was always drawn to jazz music and French chanson. When I was studying in Paris I fell in love with their beautiful ‘chansons’ – little pieces of theatre. Piaf was a consummate storyteller and I have loved singing her songs ever since…

What do you consider to be the highlight of your career?

There are many highlights in my musical journey:

Recording at the legendary Rudy van Gelder studio with Ray Bryant – singing my lyrics to his music and performing with him and the band at the Jazz Standard in New York was a blast!

Singing the main role in the Kurt Weill /Ira Gershwin 1941 musical Lady in the Dark in every major opera house in France with a 23 piece orchestra was heavenly!

Earlier on, singing at Ronnie Scott’s in London and being invited by Ronnie Scott himself was very special.

How does it feel when you are on stage?

I always feel at home on stage.I want the audience to feel at home too. The songs and stories take over and I am always singing with the finest musicians. A lucky girl!

How did you discover the power of your voice?

Voices are highly individual. No two voices are the same! I love listening to the human voice. As it is so personal, it is also very expressive as a musical instrument. As a child, I would always love to sing. It made me happy to sing. Luckily, people like to listen…

What does jazz mean to you?

Jazz is such vibrant music and very much a celebration of ‘now’. Every gig is a new adventure!

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘The Best is yet to Come’ is a great song. I love its positive message.

Tina May will perform at the Lido Jazz Room on Friday 12 July and at the Paris Cat Jazz Club on Saturday 13 and Sunday 14 July

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